June 8, 2017

Third annual Global Barista Celebration Championship

Late last year, Coffee Brothers Owner/Director Tony Macri and I were invited to Harbin, China, judging and competing respectively in the third annual Global Barista Celebration Championship (GBCC).

The competition features a shared focus between latte art and the coffee flavour profile, with categories in both espresso and milk-based. Not only was the GBCC a fantastic competition to compete in and train for, it gave me opportunity to take in the unique cultural experience of visiting northern China.

Our home base was Harbin, around 400 km from the Russian border. Harbin in winter is one cold city! I wouldn’t even think of stepping outside without possum socks, leg warmers, double thermals, gloves, a beanie and an overcoat, and even then, I still wasn’t wearing enough. I guess an average daily temperature of -22°c will do that to a coastal dwelling Aussie like myself.

We even resorted to testing the theory that eating ice cream “brings your body temperature down so you don’t feel the cold as much”.

My conclusion? Nope. Doesn’t work.

Despite the cold, we spent a fair amount of time wandering Harbin’s cleanly swept streets, negotiating the chaotic traffic and taking selfies with all the locals ,who were endlessly curious about our foreign appearances; my blue eyes certainly drew considerable attention. One man pulled out his massive Canon SLR and pushed everyone else out of the frame to only photograph my face. It was a little weird, no doubt, but a bit of entertainment for everyone involved.

We were extremely well looked after in Harbin for the entirety of our trip. Our hosts were engaging and hospitable, despite some cultural differences over their flexible concept of time, their insistence on playing the same four songs on repeat over four-hour long bus trips, and their offerings of exotic delicacies such as pork brains, pig’s ears and cow stomach. They even drink their alcohol differently to us, drinking beer warm off the shelf and gulping down local spirits by the bowl. To say our hosts were congenial would be an understatement!

The GBCC is a coffee competition that allows baristas to showcase a complete skillset of creativity, style and knowledge. Competitors were invited to compete from across the globe, representing scenes as diverse as Uganda, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Australia. In addition to testing both technical skill and latte art, the true challenge of this competition lay in perfecting our time management.

Each competitor was asked to deliver 18 cups of coffees in 15 minutes. Firstly, six espressos, then six cappuccinos in a pre-determined, free-pour latte art order, followed by the final six free-pour cappuccinos. Points went towards the order in which the coffees were presented, as well as for cup cleanliness, time management, consistency in flavour across all 18 cups and of course, the flavour and the artwork itself.

In the lead up to the competition, deciding what coffee I was going to compete with ended up being both a formidable trial and a great source of enjoyment. The challenge was finding one coffee that worked well as both an espresso, and a cappuccino. One coffee our team trialled was an Ethiopian Guji supplied by Seven Miles Roasters. The espresso produced aromas of blueberries and notes of jasmine, while the cappuccino reminded us more of an apple strudel. While this coffee was fun to play around with, the cappuccino didn’t quite have the strength to be ideal. So, in an inspired, but slightly insane attempt to seek perfection, Tony threw me a curve ball three days before my flight to China, requesting that we create and test a whole new blend.

Only weeks beforehand, our Coffee Brothers Seasonal Blend had claimed the gold medal for milk-based espresso at the 2016 Golden Bean Australia competition, so it made sense that Tony had an interest in me using this coffee. The dilemma we had, however, was the coffee’s espresso flavour. In the end, we added a freshly roasted Panama Geisha to the already complex mix. This blend managed to round out the balance in the espresso, and suddenly, we had a new coffee to work with and take with us to China.

With the coffee dilemma behind us, my attention was now drawn to the milk. Twenty hours before Tony and I had to leave for the airport, I realised I had no way of transporting eight litres of fresh Paul’s full cream milk on a 16 hour flight. We could have wrapped the bottles up in clothes and hoped for the best, but that idea didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. So, I enlisted the help of my all-knowing grandmother. Within an hour of my desperate phone call, she’d managed to provide me with one portable soft esky and eight frozen ice bricks, even going as far as having me bring the milk over to be sous-vied in case of leakage. Crisis averted!

On our arrival in Harbin, sorting out the refrigeration situation proved to be a much simpler process. In each of our hotel rooms was an accessible ledge between two windows. With the temperature in our room averaging what felt like 30 degrees, and the outside hitting a brisk -22 at midday, this ledge pretty well sufficed as a makeshift fridge.

The theme of “making it up as you go” only continued throughout the competition. I had been practicing my speed and latte art skills under pressure, according to the rules of the competition. Speed training at work, with a focus on neat and consistent latte art, often aroused the annoyance of my fellow baristas mid-service – turns out I am a poor judge of timing when to practice in between customers!

I would practice my set over and over, with multiple variables in latte art, while working on a three-group machine with a fast grinder. Unfortunately for me, at the actual competition, the equipment included a two-group machine and what seemed to be a laboriously slow grinder. Even though I managed to calibrate my coffee to get a fantastic flavour profile while running at 20 seconds for a double shot, my headstrong nature became my downfall when push came to shove.

My strategy from the beginning was to start out in front of the other competitors by having incredible tasting coffee using real, fresh milk. My previous experience in local latte art comps told me while my latte art skills were good, they certainly hadn’t been perfected. So, my edge would have come from flavour, securing – I hoped – half the points straight off the bat.

To provide what I thought was the absolute best flavour for the competition, I pulled double shots in large 250 ml cappuccino cups. Yes, this tasted amazing, especially with fresh milk versus the funky long life milk the competition had provided other competitors, but it came at a deadly cost – time.

My set in the competition began. I was put head-to-head against a Chinese competitor – only one of us would go through to the next day. The six espressos were to be delivered first, and mine came out simultaneously with his. No problem. Then the two cappuccino rounds began, and one by one, I watched his beautifully poured coffees come out in half the time I was churning out mine. Before I knew it, he was delivering his ninth and tenth out of twelve cups and I was still completing my fourth, fifth and sixth. With the buzzer rapidly approaching, I could feel the onset of panic coming on. Every other competitor had split their cappuccino shots, and it was only now that I realised why this was a smart move, despite the resulting coffee tasting very weak. In a poor attempt to speed up my set to produce all 18 cups in the 15 minutes, I rushed my art and presented the judges with coffees that I knew were below my skill level. In the end, two cappuccinos did not make it to the table. I figured my best bet would be to wrap up at the 15 minute mark, to avoid losing excess points on overtime.

With every competitive situation, there is always something to be learnt. The competition in Harbin left me humbled by the experience of having a strategy not work out as planned. Equally, I came away impressed with the talent of international baristas and what they are working with around the world. My hope is that in upcoming competitions, I’ll be better equipped to really soak up the pleasure of competing, being able to approach things with a more adaptive mentality.

The actual performance of the competition aside, there was so much to love about this event. I enjoyed the addition of physical agility in having to tiptoe coffees across the stage along marked pedestrian lines, avoiding spillages caused by a ridiculously wobbly stage floor. On the other hand, I didn’t really get a kick out of hearing the same groovy competition themed tune play during each and every 15 minute set over three days. I swear that song haunted my dreams for weeks.

From the moment I arrived to the day I flew out, I adored my experience in China. I’m truly blessed to have been invited to compete alongside some amazing baristas. Being brought together by the competition reminded me once again why I love this industry. I am extraordinarily grateful for Coffee Brothers, and especially for my boss, Tony, for providing me with the opportunity to travel and meet some wonderful people from all over the world. I have no doubt that Tony enjoyed the socialising, the judging and the touring experience just as much as I did – even if he hated the cold!

Right now, I’m focused on sharpening my skills as a barista in order to attend more events like the GBCC. I look forward to a reunion with all the friends we made on this trip, and in the near future, to have the pleasure of experiencing even more new, exciting and equally passionate café scenes from around the world.

 By Meg Loudon / Coffee Brothers

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